Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXXV

My landlady was surprised.

“Why, good evening. How well and happy you look! Here’s your mail.”

“Let it lie. I must tell you, Madame Henriksen, that you are a jewel.”

“Ha, ha, ha!”

“Yes, you are. You are a very kind woman. But you have given my address to someone.”

“No, indeed; I swear I haven’t.”

“No? Well, then someone else must have done so. Yes, you’re right, I am happy, and tomorrow morning I shall get up very early and walk down by the shore.”

“But I did send a message,” said my landlady. “I hope it wasn’t wrong of me. To a lady who wanted to know as soon as you arrived.”

“A lady? You sent a message just now?”

“A little while ago, as soon as you came in. A young, handsome lady; she might have been your daughter, you know.”

“Thank you.”

“Well, I’m only saying what’s so. She said she would come at once, because she had to see you about something.”

The landlady left me.

So Miss Torsen was coming this very evening; something must have happened. She had never visited me before. I looked round; yes, everything was neat and tidy. I washed and made myself ready. There, she can have that chair; I’d better light the other lamp, too. It might not be a bad idea to sit down to my correspondence; that would make a good impression, and if I put some letters in a small, feminine hand on top, it might even make her a little jealous — hee, hee. Oh, God, ten or fifteen years ago one could play such tricks; it’s too late now. . . .

Then she knocked and came in.

I made no move to shake hands, and neither did she; I merely drew out a chair for her.

“Excuse my coming like this,” she said. “I asked Mrs. Henriksen to send me a message; it’s nothing serious, and now I feel a little embarrassed about it, but —”

I saw that it was something serious, and my heart began to pound. Why should my heart be affected?

“This is the first time you’ve been in my rooms,” I said, expectant and on the defensive.

“Yes. It’s very nice,” she said, without looking round. She began to clasp her hands and pull them apart again till the tips of her gloves projected beyond her finger tips. She was in a state of great excitement.

“Perhaps now I’ve done something you’ll approve of?” she said, suddenly pulling off her glove.

She had a ring on her finger.

“Good,” I said. It didn’t affect me immediately; I was to understand more later, and merely asked:

“Are you engaged?”

“Yes,” she replied. And she looked at me with a smile, though her mouth shook.

I looked back at her, and I believe I said something like, “Well, now, well, well!” Then I nodded in a fatherly fashion, bowed formally, and said: “My heartiest congratulations!”

“Yes, that’s what it’s come to,” she said. “I think it was the best thing to do. Perhaps you think it’s a bit unreliable of me or rash or — well, don’t you?”

“Oh, I don’t know —”

“But it was absolutely the best thing. And I just thought I’d tell you.”

I got up. She started, evidently in a very nervous state. But I had only risen to turn down the lamp behind her, which had begun to smoke.

A pause. She said nothing more, so what could I say? But as the minutes passed and I saw she was distressed, I said:

“Why did you want to tell me this?”

“Yes — why did I?”

“Perhaps for a moment you thought you were the center of the world again, but —”

“Yes, I expect so.”

She looked about her with great, roving eyes. Then she got up; she had been sitting all this time as though about to spring at me. I rose, too. An unhappy woman — I saw that plainly enough; but good heavens, what could I do? She had come to tell me she was engaged, and at the same time looked very unhappy. Was that a way to behave? But as she got up, I could see her face better under her hat — I could see her hair — the hair that was beginning to show silken and silver at the temples — how beautiful it was! She was tall and handsome, and her breast was rising and falling — her great breast — what a great breast she had, rising and falling! Her face was brown, and her mouth open, just a little open, dry, feverishly dry —

“Miss Ingeborg!”

It was the first time I called her this. And I moved my hand toward her slightly, longing to touch her, perhaps to fondle her — I don’t know —

But she had collected herself now, and stood erect and hard. Her eyes had grown cold; they looked at me, putting me in my place again, as she walked toward the door. A cry of “No!” escaped me.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“Don’t go, not yet, not at once; sit down again and talk to me more.”

“No, you’re quite right,” she said. “I’m not the center of the universe. Here I come to bother you with my unimportant troubles, and you — well, of course, you’re busy with your extensive correspondence.”

“Look here, sit down again, won’t you? I shan’t even read the letters; they’re nothing, only two or three letters perhaps, probably from complete strangers. Now sit down; tell me everything; you owe me that much. Look, I shan’t even read the letters.”

And with that I swept them up and threw them into the fire.

“Oh — what are you doing?” she cried, and ran to the fireplace, trying to save them.

“Don’t bother,” I said. “I expect no happiness to come to me through the post, and sorrows I do not seek.”

She stood so close to me that I found myself again on the point of touching her, just for a moment, touching her arm; but I caught myself in time. I had already gone too far, so I said as gently and sympathetically as I could:

“Dear child, you must not be unhappy; it will all turn out for the best; you’ll see. Now sit down — there, that’s better.”

No doubt she had been taken aback by my violence, for she sank into her chair almost absently.

“I’m not unhappy,” she said.

“Aren’t you? So much the better!”

I began to chatter away at top speed, though I tried to restrain myself, to show that I was nothing more than an uncle to her. I talked to distract her, to distract us both; I let my tongue wag — I could hear it buzzing. What could I say? A little of everything — a great deal, in fact:

“Well, well, child. And whom are you marrying, who is the lucky man? Nice of you to come and tell me before anyone, really very nice; thank you very much. You see I’ve only just come home and I haven’t slept much on the journey. I was anxious to know — well, perhaps not anxious exactly — but still — You know what such a homecoming is: lots of people, noise, brr! — I hardly got any sleep. Then I came home, and then you came along — thank you for coming, Miss Ingeborg — I might be your father and you’re just a child; that’s why I say ‘Ingeborg.’ But when you told me all this, I hadn’t had any sleep, I wasn’t quite balanced — not enough to give you advice; I mean, I hadn’t quite appreciated — But now you can quite safely — I’d like to know, of course — Is he old? Is he young? Young, of course. I am imagining what will happen to you now, Miss Ingeborg, in your new condition. I mean, it will be so entirely different from what you’ve been accustomed to, but God bless you, it will all turn out for the best, I’m sure of that —”

“But you don’t even know who it is!” she interrupted, looking at me apprehensively again.

“No, I don’t, and I needn’t if you’d rather not tell me yet. Who is it? A dapper little man, I can see that from his ring, a schoolmaster perhaps, a clever young schoolmaster —”

She shook her head.

“Then a big, good-natured man who wants to dance with you —”

“Yes, perhaps,” she said slowly.

“There you are — you see I’ve guessed it. A bear who will carry you on his paws. On your birthday — do you know what he’ll give you for your birthday?”

But perhaps I was getting too childish; I bored her, and for the first time she looked away from me, looked at a picture on the wall, then at another picture. But it was not easy for me to stop now, after having spoken hardly at all for several weeks, and feeling profoundly excited besides — heaven only knows why.

“How did you like the country?” she asked suddenly. As I could not see the drift of this question, I merely looked at her.

“Weren’t you at Nikolai’s mother’s house?” she persisted.

“Yes.”

“What is she like?”

“Are you interested in her?”

“No, I don’t suppose so. Oh dear!” she sighed wearily.

“Come, come, you mustn’t sound like that when you’re newly engaged! What the country was like? Well, there was a schoolmaster — you know, an old bachelor, sly, and amusing. Said he knew me, and put on the most extraordinary airs the first day. And of course I returned the compliment and said I had come exclusively to meet him. ‘Impossible!’ he said. ‘Why should it be?’ I said; ‘forty years a schoolmaster, a respected man, permanent churchman, chairman, indispensable everywhere!’ Well, then I attended his class. Most impressive. He talked continually; for once he had an audience, almost like a school inspection. ‘You there, Peter! Ahem,’ he said. ‘There was a horse and a man, and one of them was riding on the other’s back. Which one was riding, Peter?’ ‘The man,’ Peter replies. A pause. ‘Well, maybe you’re right, Peter — maybe the man was riding. Just like sin, like the devil riding us. . . . ’”

But she was looking at the wall again, drifting away from me again. I changed the subject clumsily:

“Of course you’d rather hear about people you know — about Tore Peak, for instance. Josephine has been in town.”

“Yes, I know,” she said, nodding her head.

“Remember the old man at Tore Peak? I don’t think I’ll ever forget him. In a certain number of years I shall be like him — perhaps not quite so old. Then I shall be a child again with age. One day he came out, and went down to the field. I saw him; he had mittens on. You know he eats all sorts of things, and I saw him lie down and eat the hay.”

She stared at me foolishly.

“But I must say he didn’t look as though he had ever eaten hay before — possibly because it was rotting. It was the hay that had been left, you know — rotting down for next year — for the next tourist year.”

“You seem to think,” she said smiling, “that you have to cheer me up, because I’m terribly unhappy. I’m quite the reverse. Perhaps he’s too good for me; that’s what his sister seems to think, anyhow, because she tried to stop it. But I’m going to enjoy snubbing that sister of his. Anyhow, I’m not unhappy, and that isn’t the reason I’ve come. I’d really much rather have him than anyone else — since I can’t get the one I really want.”

“You’ve told me this before, child — last winter, in fact. But the man you want has gone his way — besides, you said yourself that you didn’t belong with him, or rather, that he didn’t with you — I mean —”

“Belong? Do I belong anywhere? Do you think I belong in the place I’m going to now? I’m afraid I’m not really suitable for anybody — at least I can’t think of anyone I’d suit. I wonder how I’ll manage. I wonder if he’ll be able to stand me. But I’ll do my very best; I’ve made up my mind to that.”

“Well, who is it — do I know him? Of course you suit each other. I can’t believe you don’t. He must be in love with you, quite madly in love, and you must love him in return. I’m sure you’ll come through with flying colors, Miss Ingeborg, because you’re capable and intelligent.”

“Oh, well,” she said, rising suddenly to her feet. But she hesitated over something, and seemed about to speak, then changed her mind again. At the door, she stood with her back to me, pulling on her gloves, and said:

“So you think I ought to do it?”

I was taken aback by the question, and replied:

“Ought to do it? Haven’t you done it already?”

“Yes. That is — well, yes, I’ve done it, I’m engaged. And I can tell from your manner that I’ve done the right thing.”

“Well, I don’t know. I can’t tell.”

I crossed the room to her.

“Who is it?”

“Oh, God, no; let’s drop it. I can’t bear any more now. Good night.”

She stretched her hand out fumblingly, but since she was looking at the floor, she could not find mine, and both our hands circled helplessly round each other for a moment. Then she opened the door and was gone. I called to her, begging her to wait, seized my hat, and hurried after her. An empty staircase. I rushed down and opened the street door. An empty street. She must have run.

“I’ll try to see her tomorrow,” I thought.

One day, two days, but I did not see her, though I went to all the usual places. Another day — nothing. Then I thought I would go up to her home and inquire about her. At first this did not seem to me too improper, but when it came to the point, I hesitated. There is, after all, something to be lost by making a fool of oneself. But was I not a kind of uncle? No — yes, of course, but still —

A week passes, two weeks, three. The girl has quite disappeared; I hope she hasn’t had an accident. I mount the stairs to her home and ring the bell. . . .

She’s already gone away; they left as soon as they were married, last week. She’s married to Nikolai, Carpenter Nikolai.

March — what a month! The winter is over, yet there’s no telling how much longer it may still last. That’s what March is for.

I have lived through another winter and seen the nigger entertainment at the Anglo-Saxon theater. You were there too, my friend. You saw how cleverly we all turned somersaults. Why, you even took part yourself, and you carry about a broken rib as a cherished little memento of the occasion. I saw it all from a slight distance away, ten miles, to be exact; no people were near me, but there were seven heavens above.

And pretty soon I shall be reading what the officials have to say about the year’s harvest in our country; that is to say, the harvest at the theater — in dollars, and in sterling.

The waggish professor is enjoying himself, quite in his element. There he goes, self-assured and complacent, Sir Mediocrity in all his glory. By next year, he will have dragged other progressive people in his wake; he will have dressed up Norway still more, and made it still more attractive to the Anglo-Saxons. More dollars, and more sterling.

What, do I hear someone objecting?

Yes, Switzerland.

Well, then, we shall invite Switzerland to dinner and toast her thus: “Colleague, our great aim is to resemble you. Who else can squeeze so much profit out of their mountains? Who else can file at such clockwork? Switzerland, make yourself at home; we don’t want to rob you; there are no pickpockets at this table. Here’s to you!”

But if that doesn’t help, we shall have to roll up our sleeves and fight. There are still Norwegians left in good old Norway, and our rival — is Switzerland.

Mrs. Henriksen brings catkins in a vase into my room.

“What, is it spring?”

“Oh, it’s getting on.”

“Then I shall be going away. You see, Mrs. Henriksen, I should very much have liked to stay, because this is really where I belong; but what more can I do here? I don’t work; I merely idle. Do you understand me? I grieve continually, and my heart sits wrinkled. My most brilliant achievement is spinning coins: I toss a coin into the air and wait. When I came here last autumn I wasn’t so bad, not nearly so bad. I was only half a year younger then, yet I was ten years younger. What has happened to me since? Nothing. Only — I’m not a better man than I was last autumn.”

“But you’ve been all right all winter, haven’t you? And three weeks ago, when you came back from the country, you were so happy!”

“Was I? I don’t remember that. Ah, well, things don’t move so fast, and nothing has happened to me in these three weeks. Well, never mind; at all events, I shall go away. I must travel when the spring comes. I have always done so in the past, and I want to do the same thing now. Sit down, Mrs. Henriksen.”

“No, thank you, I’m too busy.”

Too busy! Yes, you work — you’re not ten years older than you were last autumn. You think it’s hard work to rest on Sundays, don’t you? Dear Madame Henriksen! You and your little daughter knit stockings for the whole family, you let your rooms, you keep your family together like a mother. But you mustn’t let your little Louise sit for twelve years on a school form. If you do, you’ll hardly ever see her all through her youth, those formative years of her life. And then she can’t be like you or learn from you. She’ll learn to have children easily enough, but she won’t learn to be a mother, and when the time comes for her to keep her home and family together, she will not be able to do it. She’ll only know “languages” and mathematics and the story of Bluebeard, but that is not food for the heart of a woman. That is twelve years of continual famine for her soul.

“Excuse my asking, but where are you going to?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going. Why, where should I go? I shall go aboard a steamship and sail, and when I have sailed long enough, I will go ashore. If I find, on looking about me, that I have traveled too far or not far enough, I shall board a ship again and sail on. Once I walked across into Sweden as far as Kalmar and even Öland, but that was too far, so I turned back. No one cares to know where I am, least of all myself.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38